She and He: Recent Documents

She and He : Recent Documents

By

Henry James

I HAVE been reading in the Revue de Paris for November 1st
1896 some fifty pages, of an extraordinary interest, which
have had, as regards an old admiration, a very singular effect.
For many other admirers, doubtless, who have come to fifty year
—admirers, I mean, once eager, of the distinguished woman in
question—the perusal of the letters addressed by Madame George
Sand to Alfred de Musset in the course of a famous friendship
will have stirred in an odd fashion the ashes of an early ardour. I
speak of ashes because early ardours, for the most part, burn
themselves out, and the place they hold in our lives varies, I
think, mainly according to the degree of tenderness with which
we gather up and preserve their dust ; and I speak of oddity
because in the present case it is difficult to say whether the agita-
tion of the embers results, in fact, in a returning glow or in a yet
more sensible chill. That indeed is perhaps a small question
compared with the simple pleasure of the reviving emotion. One
reads and wonders and enjoys again, just for the sake of the
renewal. The small fry of the hour submit to further shrinkage,
and we revert with a sigh of relief to the free genius and large
life of one of the greatest of all masters of expression. Do people
still handle the works of this master—people other than young

ladies

16 She and He: recent Documents

ladies studying French with La Mare au Diable and a dictionary ?
Are there persons who still read Valentine? Are there others who
resort to Mauprat ? Has André, the exquisite, dropped out of
knowledge, and is any one left who remembers Teverino ? I ask
these questions for the mere sweet sound of them, without the
least expectation of an answer. I remember asking them twenty
years ago, after Madame Sand's death, and not then being hopeful
of the answer of the future. But the only response that matters
to us perhaps is our own, even if it be after all somewhat ambig-
uous. André and Valentine, then, are rather on our shelves than
in our hands, but in the light of what is given us in the Revue de
Paris who shall say that we do not, and with avidity, "read"
George Sand ? She died in 1876, but she lives again intensely
in these remarkable pages, both as to what in her spirit was most
interesting and what most disconcerting. We are vague as to
what they may represent to the generation that has come to the
front since her death ; nothing, I dare say, very imposing or even
very becoming. But they give out a great deal to a reader for
whom, thirty years ago—the best time to have taken her as a
whole—she was a high clear figure, a great familiar magician.
This impression is a strange mixture, but perhaps not quite
incommunicable ; and we are steeped as we receive it in one of
the most curious episodes in the annals of the literary race.



            I


It is the great interest of such an episode that, apart from its
proportionate place in the unfolding of a personal life, it has a
wonderful deal to say to us on the much larger matter of the
relation between experience and art. It constitutes an eminent

special

By Henry James 17

special case, in which the workings of that relation are more or
less uncovered ; a case, too, of which one of the most remarkable
features is that we are in possession of it almost exclusively by
the act of one of the persons concerned. Madame Sand at least,
as we see to-day, was eager to leave nothing undone that could
make us further acquainted than we were before with one of the
liveliest chapters of her personal history. We cannot, doubtless,
be sure that her conscious purpose in the production of Elle et
Lui was to show us the process by which private ecstacies and
pains find themselves transmuted in the artist's workshop into
promising literary material—any more than we can be certain of
her motive for making toward the end of her life earnest and
complete arrangements for the ultimate publication of the letters
in which the passion is recorded and in which we can remount to
the origin of the volume. If Elle et Lui had been the inevitable
picture, postponed and retouched, of the great adventure of her
youth, so the letters show us the crude primary stuff from which
the moral detachment of the book was distilled. Were they to
be given to the world for the encouragement of the artist-nature
—as a contribution to the view that no suffering is great enough,
no emotion tragic enough to exclude the hope that such pangs may
sooner or later be aesthetically assimilated ? Was the whole pro-
ceeding, in intention, a frank plea for the intellectual and in some
degree even the commercial profit, for a robust organism, of a
store of erotic reminiscence ? Whatever the reasons behind the
matter, that is to a certain extent the moral of the strange story.

It may be objected that this moral is qualified to come home
to us only when the relation between art and experience really
proves a happier one than it may be held to have proved in the
combination before us. The element in danger of being most
absent from the process is the element of dignity, and its presence,

so

18 She and He: recent Documents

so far as that may ever at all be hoped for in an appeal from a
personal quarrel, is assured only in proportion as the aesthetic event,
standing on its own feet, represents a solid gain. It was vain,
the objector may say, for Madame Sand to pretend to justify by so
slight a performance as Elle et Lui that sacrifice of all delicacy
which has culminated in this supreme surrender. "If you sacrifice
all delicacy," I hear such a critic contend, "show at least that
you were right by giving us a masterpiece. The novel in ques-
tion is no more a masterpiece," I even hear him proceed, "than
any other of the loose, liquid, lucid works of its author. By your
supposition of a great intention you give much too fine an account
on the one hand of a personal habit of laxity and on the other of
a literary habit of egotism. Madame Sand, in writing her tale
and in publishing her love-letters, obeyed no prompting more
complicated than that of exhibiting her personal (in which I
include her verbal) facility, and of doing so at the cost of whatever
other persons might be concerned ; and you are therefore—and
you might as well immediately confess it—thrown back, for the
element of interest, on the attraction of her general eloquence, the
plausibility of her general manner and the great number of her
particular confidences. You are thrown back on your mere
curiosity—thrown back from any question of service rendered to
'art.'" One might be thrown back, doubtless, still further even
than such remarks would represent, if one were not quite prepared
with the confession they recommend. It is only because such a
figure is interesting—in every manifestation—that the line of its
passage is marked for us by traces, suggestions, possible lessons.
And to enable us to find them it scarcely need, after all, have
aimed so extravagantly high. George Sand lived her remark-
able life and drove her perpetual pen, but the illustration that
I began by speaking of is for ourselves to gather—if we can.

I remember

By Henry James 19

I remember hearing many years ago, in Paris, an anecdote for
the truth of which I am far from vouching, though it professed
to come direct—an anecdote that has recurred to me more than
once in turning over the revelations of the Revue de Paris, and
without the need of the special reminder (in the shape of an
allusion to her intimacy with the hero of the story), contained in
those letters to Sainte-Beuve which are published in the number
of November 15. Prosper Mérimée was said to have related—
in a spirit I forbear to qualify—that during a close union with
the author of Lélia he once opened his eyes, in the raw winter
dawn, to see his companion, in a dressing-gown, on her knees
before the domestic hearth, a candlestick beside her and a red
madras round her head, making bravely, with her own hands, the
fire that was to enable her to sit down betimes to urgent pen and
paper. The story represents him as having felt that the spectacle
chilled his ardour and tried his taste ; her appearance was un-
fortunate, her occupation an inconsequence, and her industry a
reproof—the result of all of which was a lively irritation and an
early rupture. For the firm admirer of Madame Sand's prose the
little sketch has a very different value, for it presents her in an
attitude which is the very key to the enigma, the answer to most
of the questions with which her character confronts us. She rose
early because she was pressed to write, and she was pressed to
write because she had the greatest instinct of expression ever
conferred on a woman ; a faculty that put a premium on all passion,
on all pain, on all experience and all exposure, on the greatest
variety of ties and the smallest reserve about them. The really
interesting thing in these posthumous laideurs is the way the gift,
the voice, carries its possessor through them and lifts her, on the
whole, above them. It gave her, it may be confessed at the
outset and in spite of all magnanimities in the use of it, an unfair

The Yellow Book—Vol. XII B

advantage

2O She and He : recent Documents

advantage in every connection. So at least we must continue to
feel till—for our appreciation of this particular one—we have
Alfred de Musset's share of the correspondence. For we shall
have it at last, in whatever faded fury or beauty it may still possess
—to that we may make up our minds. Let the galled jade wince,
it is only a question of time. The greatest of literary quarrels
will in short, on the general ground, once more come up—the
quarrel beside which all others are mild and arrangeable, the eternal
dispute between the public and the private, between curiosity
and delicacy.

This discussion is precisely all the sharper because it takes
place, for each of us, within as well as without. When we wish
to know at all we wish to know everything ; yet there happen to
be certain things of which no better description can be given than
that they are simply none of our business. "What is, then,
forsooth, of our business ?" the genuine analyst may always ask ;
and he may easily challenge us to produce any rule of general
application by which we shall know when to go in and when to
back out. "In the first place," he may continue, "half the
'interesting' people in the world have, at one time or another,
set themselves to drag us in with all their might ; and what in the
world, in such a relation, is the observer, that he should absurdly
pretend to be in a greater flutter than the object observed ? The
mannikin, in all schools, is at an early stage of study of the human
form inexorably superseded by the man. Say that we are to give
up the attempt to understand : it might certainly be better so,
and there would be a delightful side to the new arrangement. But in
the name of common sense don't say that the continuity of life is
not to have some equivalent in the continuity of pursuit, the
continuity of phenomena in the continuity of notation. There is
not a door you can lock here against the critic or the painter

not

By Henry James 21

not a cry you can raise or a long face you can pull at him that
are not absolutely arbitrary. The only thing that makes the
observer competent is that he is not afraid nor ashamed ; the only
thing that makes him decent—just think !—is that he is not
superficial." All this is very well ; but somehow we all equally
feel that there is clean linen and soiled and that life would be
intolerable without an element of mystery. M. Emile Zola, at
the moment I write, gives to the world his reasons for rejoicing
in the publication of the physiological enquête of Dr. Toulouse—a
marvellous catalogue or handbook of M. Zola's outward and
inward parts, which leaves him not an inch of privacy, so to
speak, to stand on, leaves him nothing about himself that is for
himself, for his friends, his relatives, his intimates, his lovers, for
discovery, for emulation, for fond conjecture or flattering deluded
envy. It is enough for M. Zola that everything is for the public
and that no sacrifice is worth thinking of when it is a question of
presenting to the open mouth of that apparently gorged but still
gaping monster the smallest spoonful of truth. The truth, to his
view, is never either ridiculous or unclean, and the way to a better
life lies through telling it, so far as possible, about everything and
about every one.

There would probably be no difficulty in agreeing to this if it
didn't seem, on the part of the speaker, the result of a rare
confusion between give and take, or between "truth" and
information. The true thing that most matters to us is the
true thing we have most use for, and there are surely many
occasions on which the truest thing of all is the necessity of the
mind—its simple necessity of feeling. Whether it feels in order
to learn or learns in order to feel, the event is the same : the side
on which it shall most feel will be the side to which it will most
incline. If it feels more about a Zola functionally undeciphered,

it

22 She and He : recent Documents

it will be governed more by that particular truth than by the truth
about his digestive idiosyncrasies, or even about his "olfactive
perceptions" and his "arithomania or impulse to count." An
affirmation of our "mere taste" may very supposably be our
individual contribution to the general clearing-up. Nothing,
often, is less superficial than to skip or more constructive (for
living and feeling at all) than to choose. If we are aware that in
the same way as about a Zola undeciphered we should have felt
more about a George Sand unexposed, the true thing we have
gained becomes a poor substitute for the one we have lost ; and I
scarce know what difference it makes that the view of the elder
novelist appears, in this matter, quite to march with that of the
younger. I hasten to add that as to being, of course, asked why
in the world, with such a leaning, we have given time either to
M. Zola's physician or to De Musset's correspondent, that is
only another illustration of the bewildering state of the
subject.

When we meet on the broad highway the rueful denuded figure
we need some presence of mind to decide whether to cut it dead
or to lead it gently home, and meanwhile the fatal complication
easily occurs. We have seen, in a flash of our own wit, and
mystery has fled with a shriek. These encounters are indeed
accidents which may at any time take place, and the general
guarantee, in a noisy world, lies, I judge, not so much in any
hope of really averting them as in a regular organisation of the
combat. The painter and the painted have duly and equally to
understand that they carry their life in their hands. There are
secrets for privacy and silence ; let them only be cultivated on the
part of the hunted creature with even half the method with which
the love of sport—or call it the historic sense—is cultivated on
the part of the investigator. They have been left too much to

the

By Henry James 23

the natural, the instinctive man ; but they will be twice as effec-
tive after it begins to be observed that they may take their place
among the triumphs of civilisation. Then at last the game will
be fair and the two forces face to face ; it will be "pull devil,
pull tailor," and the hardest pull will doubtless constitute the
happiest result. Then the cunning of the inquirer, envenomed
with resistance, will exceed in subtlety and ferocity anything we
to-day conceive, and the pale forewarned victim, with every track
covered, every paper burnt and every letter unanswered, will, in
the tower of art, the invulnerable granite, stand, without a sally,
the siege of all the years.



            II


It was not in the tower of art that Madame Sand ever shut
herself up ; but I come back to a point already made in saying
that it is, in a manner, in the citadel of style that, in spite of all
rash sorties, she continues to hold out. The outline of the
complicated story that was to cause so much ink to flow gives,
even with the omission of a hundred features, a direct measure of
the strain to which her astonishing faculty was exposed. In the
summer of 1833, as a woman of nearly thirty, she encountered
Alfred de Musset, who was six years her junior. In spite of their
youth they were already somewhat bowed by the weight of a
troubled past. Musset, at twenty-three, had that of his confirmed
libertinism—so Madame Arvède Barine, who has had access to
materials, tells us in the admirable short biography of the poet
contributed to the rather markedly unequal but very interesting
series of Hachette's Grands Ecrivains Françis. Madame Sand
had a husband, a son and a daughter, and the impress of that
succession of lovers—Jules Sandeau had been one, Prosper

Mérimée

24 She and He : recent Documents

Mérimée another—to which she so freely alludes in the letters to
Sainte-Beuve, a friend more disinterested than these and qualified
to give much counsel in exchange for much confidence. It
cannot be said that the situation of either of our young persons
was of good omen for a happy relation ; but they appear to have
burnt their ships with much promptitude and a great blaze, and in
the December of that year they started together for Italy. The
following month saw them settled, on a frail basis, in Venice, where
Madame Sand remained till late in the summer of 1834 and
where she wrote, in part, Jacques and the Lettres d'un Voyageur, as
well as André and Leone-Leoni, and gathered the impressions to be
embodied later in half-a-dozen stories with Italian titles—notably
in the delightful Consuelo. The journey, the Italian climate, the
Venetian winter at first agreed with neither of the friends ; they
were both taken ill—the young man very gravely—and after a
stay of three months De Musset returned, alone and much ravaged,
to Paris.

In the meantime a great deal had happened, for their union had
been stormy and their security small. Madame Sand had nursed
her companion in illness (a matter-of-course office, it must be
owned) and her companion had railed at his nurse in health. A
young doctor, called in, had become a close friend of both parties,
but more particularly a close friend of Madame Sand, and it was to
his tender care that, on withdrawing, De Musset solemnly
committed the lady. She lived with Pietro Pagello—the transi-
tion is startling—for the rest of her stay, and on her journey back
to France he was no inconsiderable part of her luggage. He was
simple, robust and kind—not a man of genius. He remained,
however, but a short time in Paris. In the autumn of 1834 he
returned to Italy, to live on till our own day, but never again, so
far as we know, to meet his illustrious mistress. Her intercourse

with

By Henry James 25

with De Musset was, in all its intensity—one may almost say its
ferocity—promptly renewed, and was sustained in this key for
several months more. The effect of this strange and tormented
passion on the mere student of its records is simply to make him
ask himself what on earth is the matter with the subjects of it.
Nothing is more easy than to say, as I have intimated, that it has
no need of records and no need of students ; but this leaves out of
account the thick medium of genius in which it was foredoomed
to disport itself. It was self-registering, as the phrase is, for the
genius on both sides happened to be the genius of eloquence. It
is all rapture and all rage and all literature. The Lettres d'un
Voyageur spring from the thick of the fight ; La Confession d'un
Enfant du Siècle and Les Nuits are immediate echoes of the con-
cert. The lovers are naked in the market-place and perform for
the benefit of humanity. The matter with them, to the perception
of the stupefied spectator, is that they entertained for each other
every feeling in life but the feeling of respect. What the absence
of that article may do for the passion of hate is apparently nothing
to what it may do for the passion of love.

By our unhappy pair, at any rate, the luxury in question—the
little luxury of plainer folk—was not to be purchased, and in the
comedy of their despair and the tragedy of their recovery nothing
is more striking than their convulsive effort either to reach up to
it or to do without it. They would have given for it all else they
possessed, but they only meet in their struggle the inexorable
never. They strain and pant and gasp, they beat the air in vain
for the cup of cold water of their hell. They missed it in a way
for which none of their superiorities could make up. Their great
affliction was that each found in the life of the other an armoury
of weapons to wound. Young as they were, young as Musset
was in particular, they appeared to have afforded each other in that

direction

26 She and He : recent Documents

direction the most extraordinary facilities ; and nothing in the
matter of the mutual consideration that failed them is more sad
and strange than that even in later years, when their rage, very
quickly, had cooled, they never arrived at simple silence. For
Madame Sand, in her so much longer life, there was no hush, no
letting alone ; though it would be difficult indeed to exaggerate
the depth of relative indifference from which, a few years after
Musset's death, such a production as Elle et Lui could spring.
Of course there had been floods of tenderness, of forgiveness ;
but those, for all their beauty of expression, are quite another
matter. It is just the fact of our sense of the ugliness of so much
of the episode that makes a wonder and a force of the fine style,
all round, in which it is presented to us. This force, in its turn,
is a sort of clue to guide—or perhaps rather a sign to stay—our
feet in paths after all not the most edifying. It gives a degree of
importance to the somewhat squalid and the somewhat ridiculous
story, and, for the old George-Sandist at least, lends a positive spell to
the smeared and yellowed paper, the blotted and faded ink. In this
twilight of association we seem to find a reply to our own challenge
and to be able to tell ourselves why we meddle with such old, dead
squabbles and waste our time with such grimacing ghosts. If we
were superior to the weakness, moreover, how should we make our
point (which we must really make at any cost) about the value of
this vivid proof that a great talent is the best guarantee—that it
may really carry off almost anything ?

The rather sorry ghost that beckons us on furthest is the rare
personality of Madame Sand. Under its influence—or that of old
memories from which it is indistinguishable—we pick our steps
among the laideurs aforesaid : the misery, the levity, the brevity
of it all, the greatest ugliness, in particular, that this life shows us,
the way the devotions and passions that we see heaven and earth

called

By Henry James 27

called to witness are over before we can turn round. It may be
said that, for what it was, the intercourse of these unfortunates
surely lasted long enough ; but the answer to that is that if it had
only lasted longer it wouldn't have been what it was. It was not
only preceded and followed by intimacies, on one side and the
other, as unrestricted, but it was mixed up with them in a manner
that would seem to us dreadful if it didn't, still more, seem to
us droll ; or rather perhaps if it didn't refuse altogether to come
home to us with the crudity of contemporary things. It is
antediluvian history, a queer, vanished world—another Venice,
another Paris, an inextricable, inconceivable Nohant. This rele-
gates it to an order agreeable somehow to the imagination of the
fond quinquegenarian, the reader with a fund of reminiscence.
The vanished world, the old Venice, the old Paris are a bribe to
his judgment ; he has even a glance of complacency for the lady's
liberal foyer. Liszt, one lovely year at Nohant, "jouait du piano
au rez-de-chaussée, et les rossignols, ivres de musique et de soleil,
s'égosillaient avec rage sur les lilas environnants." The beautiful
manner confounds itself with the conditions in which it was exer-
cised, the large liberty and variety overflow into admirable prose,
and the whole thing makes a charming faded medium in which
Chopin gives a hand to Consuelo and the small Fadette has her
elbows on the table of Flaubert.

There is a terrible letter of the autumn of 1834, in which
Madame Sand has recourse to Alfred Tattet in a dispute with the
bewildered Pagello—a very disagreeable matter, hinging on a
question of money. "A Venise il comprenait," she somewhere
says ; "à Paris il ne comprend plus." It was a proof of remark-
able intelligence that he did understand in Venice, where he had
become a lover in the presence and with the exalted approbation
of an immediate predecessor—an alternate representative of the

part,

28 She and He : recent Documents

part, whose turn had now, on the removal to Paris, come round
again and in whose resumption of office it was looked to him to
concur. This attachment—to Pagello—had lasted but a few
months ; yet already it was the prey of disagreement and change,
and its sun appears to have set in no very graceful fashion. We
are not here, in truth, among very graceful things, in spite of
superhuman attitudes and great romantic flights. As to these
forced notes, Madame Arvède Barine judiciously says that the
picture of them contained in the letters to which she had had
access, and some of which are before us, "presents an example
extraordinary and unique of what the romantic spirit could do
with beings who had become its prey." She adds that she regards
the records in question, "in which we follow step by step the
ravages of the monster," as "one of the most precious psycho-
logical documents of the first half of the century." That puts
the story on its true footing, though we may regret that it should
not divide these documentary honours more equally with some
other story in which the monster has not quite so much the best
of it. But it is the misfortune of the comparatively short and
simple annals of conduct and character that they should ever
seem to us, somehow, to cut less deep. Scarce—to quote again
his best biographer—had Musset, at Venice, begun to recover
from his illness than the two lovers were seized afresh by le vertige
du sublime et de l'impossible. "Ils imaginèrent les déviations de
sentiment les plus bizarres, et leur intérieur fut le théâtre de scènes
qui égalaient en étrangeté les fantaises les plus audacieuses de la
littérature contemporaine ; " that is of the literature of their own
day. The register of virtue contains no such lively items—
save indeed in so far as these contortions and convulsions were a
conscious tribute to virtue.

Ten weeks after Musset has left her in Venice Madame Sand

writes

By Henry James 29

writes to him in Paris: "God keep you, my friend, in your
present disposition of heart and mind. Love is a temple built by
the lover to an object more or less worthy of his worship, and
what is grand in the thing is not so much the god as the altar.
Why should you be afraid of the risk ?"—of a new mistress, she
means. There would seem to be reason enough why he should
have been afraid ; but nothing is more characteristic than her
eagerness to push him into the arms of another woman—more
characteristic either of her whole philosophy of these matters or
of their tremendous, though somewhat conflicting, effort to be
good. She is to be good by showing herself so superior to jealousy
as to stir up in him a new appetite for a new object, and he is to
be so by satisfying it to the full. It appears not to occur to any
one that in such an arrangement his own virtue is rather
sacrificed. Or is it indeed because he has scruples—or even a
sense of humour—that she insists with such ingenuity and such
eloquence? "Let the idol stand long or let it soon break, you
will in either case have built a beautiful shrine. Your soul will
have lived in it, have filled it with divine incense, and a soul like
yours must produce great works. The god will change perhaps ;
the temple will last as long as yourself." "Perhaps," under the
circumstances, was charming. The letter goes on with the
ample flow that was always at the author's command—an ease of
suggestion and generosity, of beautiful melancholy acceptance, in
which we foresee, on her own horizon, the dawn of new suns.
Her simplifications are delightful—they remained so to the end ;
her touch is a wondrous sleight-of-hand. The whole of this
letter, in short, is a splendid utterance and a masterpiece of the
particular sympathy which consists of wishing another to feel as
you feel yourself. To feel as Madame Sand felt, however, one
had to be, like Madame Sand, a man ; which poor Musset was far

from

30 She and He : recent Documents

from being. This, we surmise, was the case with most of her
lovers, and the verity that makes the idea of her liaison with
Mérimée, who was one, sound almost like a union against nature.
She repeats to her correspondent, on grounds admirably stated,
the injunction that he is to give himself up, to let himself go, to
take his chance. That he took it we all know—he followed her
advice only too well. It is indeed not long before his manner of
doing so draws from her a cry of distress. "Ta conduite est
déplorable, impossible. Mon Dieu, à quelle vie vais-je te laisser ?
1'ivresse, le vin, les filles, et encore et toujours !" But apprehen-
sions were now too late ; they would have been too late at the
very earliest stage of this celebrated connection.




            III


The great difficulty was that, though they were sublime, the
couple were not serious. But, on the other hand, if, on a lady's
part, in such a relation, the want of sincerity or of constancy is a
grave reproach, the matter is a good deal modified when the lady,
as I have mentioned, happens to be—I won't go so far exactly as
to say a gentleman. That George Sand just fell short of this
character was the greatest difficulty of all ; because if a woman, in
a love-affair, may be—for all she is to gain or to lose—what she
likes, there is only one thing that, to carry it off with any degree
of credit, a man may be. Madame Sand forgot this on the day
she published Elle et Lui ; she forgot it again, more gravely, when
she bequeathed to the great snickering public these present shreds
and relics of unutterably delicate things. The aberration connects
itself with the strange lapses of still other occasions—notably with
the extraordinary absence of scruples with which, in the delightful

Histoire

By Henry James 31

Histoire de ma Vie, she gives away, as we say, the character of her
remarkable mother. The picture is admirable for vividness, for
touch ; it would be perfect from any hand not a daughter's, and
we ask ourselves wonderingly how, through all the years, to make
her capable of it, a long perversion must have worked and the
filial fibre—or rather the general flower of sensibility—have been
battered. Not this particular anomaly, however, but some others
certainly, clear up more or less in the light of the reflection that
as, just after her death, a very perceptive person who had known
her well put it to the author of these remarks, she was a woman
quite by accident. Her immense plausibility was almost the only
sign of her sex. She needed always to prove that she had been in
the right ; as how indeed could a person fail to, who, thanks to the
special equipment I have named, might prove it so easily ? It is
not too much to say of her gift of expression—and I have already
in effect said it—that, from beginning to end, it floated her over
the real as a high tide floats a ship over the bar. She was never
left awkwardly straddling on the sandbank of fact.

For the rest, at any rate, with her free experience and her free
use of it, her literary style, her love of ideas and questions, of
science and philosophy, her camaraderie, her boundless tolerance,
her intellectual patience, her personal good-humour and perpetual
tobacco (she smoked long before women at large felt the cruel
obligation), with all these things and many I don't mention, she
had morally more of the notes of the other sex than of her own.
She had above all the mark that, to speak at this time of day with
a freedom for which her action in the matter of publicity gives us
warrant, the history of her personal passions reads singularly like a
chronicle of the ravages of some male celebrity. Her relations
with men closely resembled those relations with women that, from
the age of Pericles or that of Petrarch, have been complacently

commemorated

32 She and He : recent Documents

commemorated as stages in the unfolding of the great statesman
and the great poet. It is very much the same large list, the same
story of free appropriation and consumption. She appeared in
short to have lived through a succession of such ties exactly in the
manner of a Goethe, a Byron or a Napoleon ; and if millions of
women, of course, of every condition, had had more lovers, it was
probable that no woman, independently so occupied and so
diligent, had ever had, as might be said, more unions. Her
fashion was quite her own of extracting from this sort of experi-
ence all that it had to give her, and being withal only the more
just and bright and true, the more sane and superior, improved
and improving. She strikes us, in the benignity of such an
intercourse, as even more than maternal : not so much the mere
fond mother as the supersensuous grandmother of the wonderful
affair. Is not that practically the character in which Thérèse
Jacques studies to present herself to Laurent de Fauvel ? the light
in which Lucrezia Floriani (a memento of a friendship for
Chopin, for Liszt) shows the heroine as affected toward Prince
Karol and his friend ? George Sand is too inveterately moral, too
preoccupied with that need to do good which is often, in art, the
enemy of doing well ; but in all her work the story-part, as
children call it, has the freshness and good faith of a monastic
legend. It is just possible indeed that the moral idea was the real
mainspring of her course—I mean a sense of the duty of avenging
on the unscrupulous race of men their immemorial selfish success
with the plastic race of women. Did she wish above all to turn
the tables—to show how the sex that had always ground the other
in the intellectual mill was on occasion capable of being ground ?

However this may be, nothing is more striking than the im-
punity with which she gave herself to conditions that are usually
held to denote or to involve a state of demoralisation. This

impunity

By Henry James 33

impunity (to speak only of consequences or features that concern us) was not, I admit, complete, but it was sufficiently so to warrant us in saying that no one was ever less demoralised. She presents a case prodigiously discouraging to the usual view—the view that there is no surrender to "unconsecrated" passion that we escape paying for in one way or another. It is, frankly, diffi- cult to see where this eminent woman conspicuously paid. She positively got off from paying—and in a cloud of fluency and dignity, benevolence, intelligence. She sacrificed, it is true, a handful of minor coin—met the loss by failing, in her picture of life, wholly to grasp certain shades and certain differences. What she paid was just this loss of her touch for them. That is one of the reasons, doubtless, why to-day the picture in question has perceptibly faded—why there are persons who would perhaps even go so far as to say that it has really a comic side. She doesn't know, according to such persons, her right hand from her left, the crooked from the straight and the clean from the unclean : it was a sense she lacked or a tact she had rubbed off, and her great work is, by this fatal twist, quite as lopsided a monument as the leaning tower of Pisa. Some readers may charge her with a graver confusion still—the incapacity to distinguish between fiction and fact, the truth straight from the well and the truth curling in steam from the kettle and preparing the comfortable tea. There is no word oftener on her pen, they will remind us, than the verb to "arrange." She arranged constantly, she ar- ranged beautifully ; but from this point of view—that of suspicion —she always proved too much. Turned over in the light of it the story of Elle et Lui, for instance, is an attempt to prove that the mistress of Laurent de Fauvel was a regular prodigy of virtue. What is there not, the intemperate admirer may be challenged to tell us, an attempt to prove in L'Histoire de ma

Vie?

34 She and He : recent Documents

Vie ?—a work from which we gather every delightful impression
but the impression of an impeccable veracity.

These reservations may, however, all be sufficiently just
without affecting our author's peculiar air of having eaten her cake
and had it, been equally initiated in directions the most opposed.
Of how much cake she partook the letters to Musset and Sainte-
Beuve well show us, and yet they fall in at the same time, on
other sides, with all that was noble in her mind, all that is
beautiful in the books just mentioned and in the six volumes of
the general Correspondance : 1812-1876, out of which Madame
Sand comes so immensely to her advantage. She had, as liberty,
all the adventures of which the dots are so put on the i's by the
documents lately published, and then she had, as law, as honour
and serenity, all her fine reflections on them and all her splendid,
busy, literary use of them. Nothing perhaps gives more relief to
her masculine stamp than the rare art and success with which she
cultivated an equilibrium. She made, from beginning to end, a
masterly study of composure, absolutely refusing to be upset,
closing her door at last against the very approach of irritation and
surprise. She had arrived at her quiet, elastic synthesis—a good-
humour, an indulgence that were an armour of proof. The great
felicity of all this was that it was neither indifference nor renun-
ciation, but on the contrary an intense partaking ; imagination,
affection, sympathy and life, the way she had found for herself of
living most and living longest. However well it all agreed with
her happiness and her manners, it agreed still better with her style,
as to which we come back with her to the sense that this was
really her point d'appui or sustaining force. Most people have to
say, especially about themselves, only what they can; but she
said—and we nowhere see it better than in the letters to Musset—
everything in life that she wanted. We can well imagine the

effect

By Henry James 35

effect of that consciousness on the nerves of this particular corre-
spondent, his own poor gift of occasional song (to be so early
spent) reduced to nothing by so unequalled a command of the
last word. We feel it, I hasten to add, this last word, in all her
letters : the occasion, no matter which, gathers it from her as the
breeze gathers the scent from the garden. It is always the last
word of sympathy and sense, and we meet it on every page of the
voluminous Correspondance. These pages are not so "clever"
as those, in the same order, of some other famous hands—the writer
always denied, justly enough, that she had either wit or drollery—
and they are not a product of high spirits or of a marked avidity
for gossip. But they have admirable ease, breadth and generosity ;
they are the clear, quiet overflow of a very full cup. They speak
above all for the author's great gift, her eye for the inward drama.
Her hand is always on the fiddle-string, her ear is always at the
heart. It was in the soul, in a word, that she saw the play begin,
and to the soul that, after whatever outward flourishes, she saw it
confidently come back. She herself lived with all her perceptions
and in all her chambers—not merely in the showroom of the shop.
This brings us once more to the question of the instrument and
the tone, and to our idea that the tone, when you are so lucky as
to possess it, may be of itself a solution.

By a solution I mean a secret for saving not only your reputa-
tion but your life—that of your spirit ; an antidote to dangers
which the unendowed can hope to escape by no process less
uncomfortable or less inglorious than that of prudence and
precautions. The unendowed must go round about ; the others
may go straight through the wood. Their weaknesses, those of
the others, shall be as well redeemed as their books shall be well
preserved ; it may almost indeed be said that they are made wise
in spite of themselves. If you have never, in all your days, had a

The Yellow Book—Vol. XII. c

weakness,

36 She and He : recent Documents

weakness, you can be, after all, no more, at the very most, than
large and cheerful and imperturbable. All these things Madame
Sand managed to be on just the terms she had found, as we see,
most convenient. So much, I repeat, does there appear to be in a
tone. But if the perfect possession of one made her, as it well
might, an optimist, the action of it is perhaps more consistently
happy in her letters and her personal records than in her "creative"
work. Her novels to-day have turned rather pale and faint, as
if the image projected—not intense, not absolutely concrete—failed
to reach completely the mind's eye. And the odd point is that
the wonderful charm of expression is not really a remedy for this
lack of intensity, but rather an aggravation of it through a sort of
suffusion of the whole thing by the voice and speech of the author.
These things set the subject, whatever it be, afloat in the upper
air, where it takes a happy bath of brightness and vagueness or
swims like a soap-bubble kept up by blowing. This is no draw-
back when she is on the ground of her own life, to which she is
tied, in truth, by a certain number of tangible threads ; but to
embark on one of her confessed fictions is to have—after all that
has come and gone, in our time, in the trick of persuasion—a
little too much the feeling of going up in a balloon. We are
borne by a fresh, cool current, and the car delightfully dangles ;
but as we peep over the sides we see things—as we usually know
them—at a dreadful drop beneath. Or perhaps a better way to
express the sensation is to say what I have just been struck with
in the re-perusal of Elle et Lui ; namely that this book, like
others by the same hand, affects the reader—and the impression is
of the oddest—not as a first but as a second echo or edition of the
immediate real, or in other words of the subject. The tale may
in this particular be taken as typical of the author's manner ;
beautifully told, but told, as if on a last remove from the facts, by

some

By Henry James 37

some one repeating what he has read or what he has had from
another and thereby inevitably becoming more general and super-
ficial, missing or forgetting the "hard" parts and slurring them
over and making them up. Of everything but feelings the pre-
sentation is dim. We recognise that we shall never know the
original narrator and that Madame Sand is the only one we can
deal with. But we sigh perhaps as we reflect that we may never
confront her with her own informant.

To that, however, we must resign ourselves ; for I remember
in time that the volume from which I take occasion to speak
with this levity is the work that I began by pronouncing a
precious illustration. With the aid of the disclosures of the
Revue de Paris it was, as I hinted, to show us that no mistakes
and no pains are too great to be, in the air of art, triumphantly
convertible. Has it really performed this function ? I thumb
again my copy of the limp little novel and wonder what, alas !
I shall reply. The case is extreme, for it was the case of a
suggestive experience particularly dire, and the literary flower
that has bloomed vipon it is not quite the full-blown rose.
"Oeuvre de rancune" Arvède Barine pronounces it, and if we take
it as that we admit that the artist's distinctness from her material
was not ideally complete. Shall I not better the question by
saying that it strikes me less as a work of rancour than—in a
peculiar degree—as a work of egotism ? It becomes in that light,
at any rate, a sufficiently happy affirmation of the author's
infallible form. This form was never a more successful
vehicle for the conveyance of sweet reasonableness. It is all
superlatively calm and clear ; there never was a kinder, balmier
last word. Whatever the measure of justice of the particular
picture, moreover, the picture has only to be put beside the
recent documents, the "study," as I may call them, to illustrate

the

38 She and He : recent Documents

the general phenomenon. Even if Elle et Lui is not the full-
blown rose, we have enough here to place in due relief an
irrepressible tendency to bloom. In fact I seem already to
discern that tendency in the very midst of the storm ; the
"tone" in the letters too has its own way and performs on its
own account—which is but another manner of saying that the
literary instinct, in the worst shipwreck, is never out of its depth.
Madame Sand could be drowned but in an ocean of ink. Is
that a sufficient account of what I have called the laying bare
of the relation between experience and art ? With the two
elements, the life and the genius, face to face—the smutches
and quarrels at one end of the chain, and the high luminosity
at the other—does some essential link still appear to be missing ?
How do the graceless facts, after all, confound themselves with
the beautiful spirit ? They do so, incontestably, before our
eyes, and the mystification remains. We try to trace the process,
but before we break down we had better perhaps hasten to
grant that—so far at least as George Sand is concerned—some
of its steps are impenetrable secrets of the grand manner.





MLA citation: James, Henry. "She and He: Recent Documents" The Yellow Book 12 (January 1897): 15-38. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2013. Web. [Date of access]. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV12_james_she.html